The Alexandria City Council will decide Saturday what to do about its multiple public commemorations of the Confederacy, after what is expected to be a heated public hearing.
Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) warned at a meeting Tuesday night that she will strictly enforce a “three-minute rule” that limits each speaker’s time during the hearing, a restriction she has not enforced in the past.
At issue will be the recommendations of a task force which last month advised the council to rename Jefferson Davis Highway (also known as Route 1), retain the “Appomattox” statue of the pensive, South-facing Confederate soldier at Prince and South Washington streets but add more context to it, and do nothing about the myriad streets named after Confederate heroes, unless residents petition to change the names of specific streets.
The task force’s recommendations are advisory; it is up to the City Council to decide whether to accept them. The task force was divided in its decision; the two African Americans who served on the group said the advice should have gone further in clamping down on Confederate symbols.
Silberberg, who became mayor in January, urged residents to “be careful and respectful and understanding. It’s a difficult subject for some, for many and for all of us.”
The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago with the defeat of the rebellious states, but in Alexandria, the first Southern city occupied by Northern troops, indications abound that some secessionists never quite accepted their defeat.
A portrait of Confederate leader Gen. Robert E. Lee hangs in the City Council’s chambers, for example, sharing pride of place with a portrait of the first U.S. president, George Washington. Both leaders spent time living in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Tourism efforts in Alexandria focus greater on the city’s role during the American Revolution rather than its slave-owning, antebellum past.
But in the summer of 2015, prompted by the shooting of nine worshipers at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., city leaders decided it was time to reconsider certain practices, such as whether city workers should hoist the Confederate flag twice a year at a major entrance to the city and in the public right of way.
The council last year decided to end the tradition.
That discussion prompted a subsequent examination of the city’s many related Confederate markers: the plaque erected in 1929 at Pitt and King streets, which leaves out key details of the first Civil War-related deaths in Alexandria; the city’s allowance of a privately owned statue of the mournful Confederate soldier in the middle of a busy intersection near the southern entrance to Old Town; the decision in 1953 to name north-south streets in the newly annexed West End after Southern military leaders, such as Gen. G.T. Beauregard, Maj. Eli Hamilton Janney, Gen. Jubal Early and many others.
The task force that studied what to do with those markers was created last year by then-mayor Bill Euille (D), the only African American to have held the city’s top elected office. On Wednesday, Euille sent a letter to the City Council, urging lawmakers to adopt the task force recommendations. “On Saturday, you will have the opportunity to both deal with history, and to make history, with your decision,” Euille wrote.